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Kasteel Well Week 8: Luxembourg

  • March 20, 2013
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My friend Allie and I sat down close to the end of our time in Madrid and realized we had planned everything up until spring break, but not one second afterwards. We came up with a few possibilities of what to do after break. Our first choice was to see a Manchester United game on their home turf, but after discovering it is nearly impossible to purchase tickets to a game we created a backup plan. I threw out the idea of Luxembourg since it was nearby and I’ve never met anyone that’s been there. Our research showed we might be in for one of the most interesting weekends in Europe.

Luxembourg is smaller than the state of Rhode Island yet has the highest GDP per capita in the world. Belgium, France and Germany border the landlocked country and the official languages are Luxembourgish, French and German. Occupied by Germany in both World War I and II, Luxembourg was one of the main fighting grounds during the Battle of the Bulge and over 5,000 American soldiers – including General George S. Patton – are buried in the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial just outside of the capital city. Luxembourg is home to over 100 castles and was an important militaristic country due to its fortifications and location. The eastern part of the country is dubbed “Little Switzerland” and miles of hiking trails meander through the wilderness. Forget Manchester, we were sold on Luxembourg.

Arrival at Luxembourg Central

Arrival at Luxembourg Central

The trip began in a typical fashion, with scrambling to pack in the minutes between class and the bus leaving. I was still stuffing a few last minute things into my bag, as we were awkwardly walking/running down Kasteellaan towards the bus stop. By this time of the semester, we were experts of Dutch transportation; tapping our OV Chipkaarts on the bus, tapping into the right train company to Roermond, switching companies to Maastricht and lastly purchasing paper tickets to Luxembourg Central via Liege, Belgium. Our train pulled into Luxembourg Central around 10 at night and thus began the hostel search.

The city of Luxembourg’s quarters are built at different elevations and are connected by angled roads and staircases. We found ourselves walking down a winding incline into the Old City and along the small little buildings that made up that area. When the road split to three different elevations, we took the highest road hoping that would get us to our hostel. Our route provided us with a beautiful sight of Old Town lit up by old, yellowing streetlights. For a city, Luxembourg seemed quiet and serene at this time of night, but with only just over 100,000 residents (a fifth of the country’s population) that is to be expected. The road continued to follow the hillside until it cut through a rocky tunnel. We took another steep, winding road down to our hostel that was nestled in the valley below.

Hostelling International and the Luxembourg Tourism Office operate all of Luxembourg’s hostels and were some of the nicest I stayed in. Tired from the journey, we called it an early night with intentions of waking up bright and early. Luxembourg offers day passes for €4 that are valid on every bus & train within the country! We missed our first train due to our inexperience buying the tickets, but soon enough we were on a train to Mersch, which is about smack-dab-in-the-middle of Luxembourg. Our research told us about the Valley of the Seven Castles, which is a valley that – you guessed it – has seven castles along it. A national trail runs along the valley so we planned to rent bikes and ride along the trail for the day.

We assumed we could easily rent a bike in Mersch near the trailhead. Oops. No place in Mersch rented bikes, but a kind shopkeeper recommended a store a few towns away. While walking back to the train station, I remembered a cycling shop that I had looked at the night before that was a bit south of Mersch. Luckily I hadn’t closed the maps on my laptop, so we were able to figure out where it was. 45 minutes later, we walked into the shop and asked if they offered rentals, which apparently they didn’t do often. I think the owner felt bad for us as his employees went to find some demo bikes we could rent for the day. I bought one of the store’s jerseys for my collection and soon enough we were riding to the trailhead.

Biking the Valley of the Seven Castles

Biking the Valley of the Seven Castles
Photo by Allie Altman

The trail starts in the center of Mersch and we finally started riding along with giant smiles. Soon we hit a point in the trail that was detoured, so we rode backwards in circles a few times before taking a road to find the rest of the trail. We found the trail again, but the section was becoming increasingly icy and snowy. The roads were clear, but we hadn’t thought that the path would be snow-covered. Determined, we pressed on to see if it would clear up. Unfortunately after another hour of sloshing through the snow we realized that the entire length would be snowy so we decided to call it quits. It was disappointing, but turning back was a better option than getting stuck and not returning the bikes on time.

After we dropped off our bikes, one of the employees pointed us towards a nearby snack bar for lunch. I must say I wasn’t really expecting for hamburgers and frites to be a staple of Luxembourgish cuisine, but we found them everywhere after that afternoon. Back at the Mersch train station, we hopped on a very full train to Diekirch where we caught a bus to Vianden. Once in Vianden, we took the scenic route (fancy way to say we were lost) up the hill to our hostel.

Vianden, Luxembourg at Dusk

Vianden, Luxembourg at Dusk

During check-in, the man who ran the hostel told us of a walk along the city walls that ended right downtown where we could get something for dinner. Taking his advice, we slipped and slid along the walls that lined the city. We walked along almost every street in Vianden before settling on the first restaurant we came across. Our waiter politely asked what language we preferred since Luxembourgers change languages too often. Luxembourgers speak French in Mersch, yet in Vianden they speak German for example. After selecting English, Allie and I both ordered the pork steak that the night’s special. After a day of snowy adventures, this definitely hit the spot. Before bed, we moseyed around whilst enjoying the beautiful lights reflecting off of the Our River that runs through the center of the city.

Somehow we managed to wake up and leave the hostel before the Vianden Castle opened, but we found a hiking trail that took us up to the top of a mountain where a chairlift runs during the warmer months. The sun was just starting to climb in the sky as we took in the view of Vianden with its castle looming above it. We hiked back down and entered the castle behind a group of people at least thrice our age. The castle’s exhibits marked the history of the castle, area and the medieval ages.

Conservatoire National de Véhicules Historiques

Conservatoire National de Véhicules Historiques

After a few hours of touring the castle, we caught a bus back to Diekirch. We chose to have lunch and tour Diekirch before heading to Beaufort for the night. I found it was an interesting cultural experience to be sitting in northeastern Luxembourg eating frites and mayo while watching a Portuguese news station on TV. Following lunch, we went to the Conservatoire National de Véhicules Historiques (National Museum for Historic Vehicles) and the Musée d’Histoire de la Brasserie de Diekirch (History Museum of the Diekirch Brewery) that were surprisingly both free for students. The automotive museum offered the history since cars came to Luxembourg to the present. The brewery museum housed an impressive collection of glassware, signage and more that displayed how the Diekirch Brewery developed over the years.

Mullerthal Trail

Mullerthal Trail

Another bus trip and we were pulling into Beaufort. Despite being such a small town, somehow we managed to walk every possible street before finding our hostel. We quickly dropped our bags and went to hike a section of the Mullerthal Trail before the sun went down. The 110 km Mullerthal Trail meanders through the Mullerthal Region – or “Little Switzerland” – in eastern Luxembourg. We hiked in for roughly an hour before turning back, simply enjoying being in the woods all the while.

Beaufort Castle Ruins

Beaufort Castle Ruins

The Beaufort Castle was near the trailhead but unfortunately was closed until the following weekend. But we were still able to admire the ruins from outside. Our hostel manager said the best place for dinner was on the outskirts of town, but we trusted his judgment headed out. The restaurant was located on a farm and was crawling with people. Beaufort seemed almost uninhabited until we got to the restaurant, so we clearly had made the right choice for dinner and when our food finally arrived that was confirmed.

Our plan to go back into the capital city was thwarted by our lack of consideration that buses didn’t run full schedules on Sunday. This left us waiting in the rain for almost an hour and a half as we tried to figure out how to get back. Eventually, we caught a bus back to Diekirch and then a train to Luxembourg. I was doing my best to avoid American restaurants at all costs while in Europe, but we decided on Pizza Hut for lunch. This led to quite a surreal experience. Pizza Hut was a pretty classy place in Luxembourg and was unlike any one we had seen back home.

Bock Casemates

Bock Casemates

After marveling at the classiness of Pizza Hut, we went to explore the Bock Casemates. The casemates are ancient fortifications that were built into the cliffs in and surrounding Luxembourg. There used to be more, but many were destroyed following the 1867 Treaty of London. The currently existing fortifications along with the entire city of Luxembourg were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Climbing down into these rocky tunnels is rather disorienting and I lost my bearings several times during our exploration. It didn’t help that we were doing the tour backwards because were too excited to follow the signs. Miraculously we found our way topside and took a homebound train out of Luxembourg Central. Our train was delayed just enough to make us miss every connection we had by about 5 minutes so our trip took an two more hours than planned. But after all of the train delays, our bus finally pulled into Well and we were walking towards Kasteel Well towards a well-earned nap! I think our Luxembourgish adventures could beat out a soccer match any day.